BATON ROUGE, La. — Louisiana’s sugar cane farmers struggled with extreme weather and flooding this year, which could make a dent in the nation’s sugar crop.
Farmers grappled with rain that fell day after day during a cooler spring, followed by a blistering hot and dry late summer that browned their fields. An early frost forced some to replant their crops in the spring, then cut the growing season short when cold temperatures returned.
"It's just been a year of extreme circumstances," said John Hebert, agriculture division manager at the Louisiana Sugarcane Co-op in St. Martinville.
The weather, combined with a muddy harvesting season last year, could see the weight of sugar cane stocks drop and possibly fewer pounds of sugar mills extracted.
Pointe Coupee farmer Ricky Rivet told The Advocate he anticipates a lower tonnage this year, averaging about 32 tons compared to 40 tons last year. But he said the crop’s quality is stronger.
"The crop is going to be a little below average, but the sugar is good," he said.
Ken Gravois, LSU AgCenter sugarcane specialist, said the crop damage he has seen ranges from field to field. Despite lower tonnage of stalks, the amount of sugar that mills are able to grind out has been average to above-average, he said.
"The biggest thing that'll dictate conditions will be the weather from here on out," Gravois said.
This year's lower yield should be manageable for most farmers, Hebert said. In recent growing seasons, Louisiana farmers have shattered records in the sugar harvested.
“The farmers that are in business today are in business because they've figured out how to manage these difficult times,” Hebert said. "I don't see this being catastrophic."
Louisiana’s sugar farmers are faring far better than in the upper Midwest, where cold weather has ravaged farms, leading to one of the worst sugar beet harvests in decades. Sugar beets account for roughly 25% of the nation's sugar production.
Those losses combined with the potential off-year in Louisiana are contributing to a roughly half-million-ton drop in raw sugar produced this month across the country, federal officials predict.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to consider ways to make up for the loss, such as importing more sugar from other countries. But the bad harvest likely won’t have much of an effect on prices people pay for food. Sugar has been selling at about 13 cents a pound on the commodity market, a low enough rate that enables companies to buy it elsewhere on the world market.